Helen Billiald learns useful lessons from the garden
The garden is an astonishing teacher. You could spend years studying gardening techniques in textbooks, but if you really want to accelerate your learning, there’s no substitute for time spent outdoors ‘doing’. No wonder apprenticeship and practical experience are viewed as sacrosanct for those studying horticulture. If you want to learn, then go out and get your hands dirty, preferably with a knowledgeable mentor to nudge you along the way. Thankfully this country is rich in practical short courses even if you haven’t chosen horticulture as a career. All the big gardens seem to run workshops, whether it’s swatting up on propagation or demystifying fruit tree pruning, you get to have a giggle with like-minded individuals and boost your skillset all in one go. But there’s one type of learning no one else can help you with: the education that comes from making enormous, glorious mistakes in the security of your own garden. My own past is littered with them! There was the spring when I never quite got round to digging out a couple of bramble shoots, only to revisit the idea in autumn and discover a thorny thicket worthy of Sleeping Beauty. Or the year I rushed to plant a herbaceous border only for it turn into some pretty expensive rabbit hors d’oeuvres. (Always check your fencing.) Then there are the thousands of little lessons that accumulate along the way, almost too small to note at the time: the haphazard cuttings that miraculously take; the season where you mulched everything and discovered how little time you spent weeding; the realisation that greenhouse vigilance all but wipes out problems with pests and disease. Much of this garden learning is tied so tightly to place, that moving house can leave you feeling adrift. When my husband Dave and I switched to our walled Somerset
plot I found I’d lost the equivalent of an internal reference book. After 30 years spent getting to know one garden intimately, this new space felt as alien as the moon. I suddenly found myself on heavy clay after years on free-draining sand. We now had to contend with barrelling westerlies streaming in from the coast. And for that very reason, this was now an enclosed garden, rather than one with sweeping views. But six years on, the layers of learning about this place are piling up. I’ve been taught the value of windbreaks and received graphic demonstrations of how wind tunnels work, should you care to open up a new gate in a west-facing wall. Clay is no longer something to be feared, but rates as the most fertile ground I’ve
Every day’s a school day in the garden, says helen Billiald. mostly, it’s by trial and error
ever worked with. And despite a lifelong love of a sharp spade, I’ve discovered going no-dig on this heavier ground means I can get into my kitchen garden even in winter. The time it takes to learn a place is a lesson too, for anyone drawn to the idea of ‘instant gardening’. Could someone really come in for two hours and design me a garden that would ‘work’? Only now do we know where the water sits after heavy rain, where frost can lie for days, and where the nightingale sings in May. I’m not sure anything can replace the years spent learning the intricacies of a new garden, but at least here it no longer feels like we’re gardening on the moon!
Helen Billiald is a gardening writer with a MSc in Ecology and a Phd in Pest Management
If you want to learn, go and get your hands dirty
LOOK & LEARN your garden is an excellent place to learn from mistakes!